One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge
The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which says it will pay out one million U.S. dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. Over a thousand people have applied to take the challenge, but none has yet been successful.
James Randi developed the idea for the challenge when, during a radio panel discussion, a parapsychologist challenged him to "put [his] money where [his] mouth is." In 1964, Randi started offering $1,000, then $10,000 prizes. Later, Lexington Broadcasting wanted Randi to do a show called the $100,000 Psychic Prize, so they added $90,000 to the original $10,000 raised by Randi. Finally, in 1996, one of his friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams, donated US $1,000,000 for the prize.
By April 1, 2007, only those with an already existing media profile and the backing of a reputable academic were allowed to apply for the challenge. It was hoped that the resources freed up by not having to test obscure and possibly mentally ill claimants would then be used to challenge high-profile alleged psychics and mediums such as Sylvia Browne and John Edward with a campaign in the media.
On January 4, 2008, it was announced that the prize would be discontinued on March 6, 2010 in order to free the money for other uses. In the meantime, claimants were welcome to vie for it. One of the reasons offered for its discontinuation is the unwillingness of higher-profile claimants to apply. However, at The Amaz!ng Meeting 7, it was announced that the $1 Million Challenge prize would not expire in 2010. The Foundation issued a formal update on its website on July 30, 2009, announcing the Challenge's continuation, and stated more information would be provided at a later date on any possible changes to the requirements and procedures.
On March 8, 2011, the JREF announced that qualifications were being altered to open the Challenge to more applicants. Whereas applicants were previously required to submit press clippings and a letter from an academic institution to qualify, the new rules now require applicants to present either press clippings, a letter from an academic institution, or a public video demonstrating their ability. The JREF explained that these new rules would give people without media or academic documentation a way to be considered for testing, and would allow the JREF to use online video and social media to reach a wider audience.
Since the challenge was first created by Randi in 1964, about a thousand people have applied, but no one has been successful. Randi has said that few unsuccessful applicants ever seriously consider that their failure to perform might be due to the nonexistence of the power they believe they possess.
Rules and judging
The official Challenge rules stipulate that the participant must agree, in writing, to the conditions and criteria of their test. Claims that cannot be tested experimentally are not eligible for the Challenge. Claimants are able to influence all aspects of the testing procedure and participants during the initial negotiation phase of the challenge. Applications for any challenges that might cause serious injury or death will not be accepted.
To ensure that the experimental conditions themselves do not negatively affect a claimant's ability to perform, non-blinded preliminary control tests are often performed. For example, the JREF has dowsers perform a control test, in which the dowser attempts to locate the target substance or object using their dowsing ability, even though the target's location has been revealed to the applicant. Failure to display a 100% success rate in the open test will cause their immediate disqualification. However, claimants are usually able to perform successfully during the open test, confirming that experimental conditions are adequate.
The rules prohibit independent judging, making the success or failure of the challenge dependent on whether Randi agrees that the test has been passed. JREF staff and affiliates point out that the nature of the experimental design makes subjective judging of results unnecessary. Since claimants agree to readily observable success criteria prior to the test, results are unambiguous and clearly indicate whether or not the criteria have been met. Randi has said that he need not participate in any way with the actual execution of the test, and he has been willing to travel far from the test location to avoid the perception that his anti-paranormal bias could influence the test results.
The discussions between the JREF and applicants were at one time posted on a public discussion board for all to see. Since the resignation of Randi's assistant, Mr. Kramer—and subsequent changes to challenge rules requiring applicants to have demonstrated considerable notability—new applications are no longer logged, but the JREF continues to maintain an archive of previous applicants.
Example of a test (dowsing)
In 1979 Randi tested four people in Italy for dowsing ability (Mr. Fontana, Dr. Borga, Mr. Stanziola, and Mr. Senatore). The prize at the time was $10,000. The conditions were that a 10 meter by 10 meter test area would be used. There would be water supply and a reservoir just outside the test area. There would be three plastic pipes running underground from the source to the reservoir along different concealed paths. Each pipe would pass through the test area by entering at some point on an edge and exiting at some point on an edge. A pipe would not cross itself but it might cross others. The pipes were 3 centimeters in diameter and were buried 50 centimeters below ground. Valves would select which of the pipes water was running through, and only one would be selected at a time. At least 5 liters per second of water would flow through the selected pipe. The dowser must first check the area to see if there is any natural water or anything else that would interfere with the test, and that would be marked. Additionally, the dowser must demonstrate that the dowsing reaction works on an exposed pipe with the water running. Then one of the three pipes would be selected randomly for each trial. The dowser would place ten to one hundred pegs in the ground along the path he or she traces as the path of the active pipe. Two-thirds of the pegs placed by the dowser must be within 10 centimeters of the center of the pipe being traced for the trial to be a success. Three trials would be done for the test of each dowser and the dowser must pass two of the three trials to pass the test. A lawyer was present, in possession of Randi's $10,000 check. If a claimant were successful, the lawyer would give him or her the check. If none were successful, the check would be returned to Randi.
All of the dowsers agreed with the conditions of the test and stated that they felt able to perform the test that day and that the water flow was sufficient. Before the test they were asked how sure they were that they would succeed. All said either "99 percent" or "100 percent" certain. They were asked what they would conclude if the water flow was 90 degrees from what they thought it was and all said that it was impossible. After the test they were asked how confident they were that they had passed the test. Three answered "100 percent" and one answered that he had not completed the test.
When all of the tests were over and the location of the pipes was revealed, none of the dowsers had passed the test. Dr. Borga had placed his markers carefully, but the nearest was a full 8 feet from the water pipe. Borga said, "We are lost", but within two minutes he started blaming his failure on many things such as sunspots and geomagnetic variables. Two of the dowsers thought they had found natural water before the test started, but disagreed with each other about where it was, as well as with the ones who found no natural water.
Controversies and claimants
Astronomer Dennis Rawlins claimed the challenge is insincere, and that Randi will ensure he never has to pay out. In the October 1981 issue of Fate, Rawlins quoted him as saying "I always have an out". Randi has stated that Rawlins did not give the entire quotation, and actually said "Concerning the challenge, I always have an 'out': I'm right!". Randi states that the phrase "I always have an out" refers to the fact that he does not allow test subjects to cheat. Randi stated that if such phenomena did exist and someone accurately demonstrated it, he would give them one million dollars.
On Larry King Live, March 6, 2001, Larry King asked psychic Sylvia Browne if she would take the challenge and she agreed. Randi appeared with Browne again on Larry King Live on September 3, 2001 and she again accepted the challenge. However, she has refused to be tested and Randi kept a clock on his website recording the number of weeks that have passed since Sylvia accepted the challenge without following through. Eventually the clock was replaced with text stating that "over 5 years" had passed.
In an appearance on Larry King Live on January 26, 2007, Randi challenged psychic Rosemary Altea to take the one million challenge. On Altea and Randi's June 5, 2001 meeting on the same show, Altea refused to take the challenge, calling it "a trick". Instead Altea, in part, replied "I agree with what he says, that there are many, many people who claim to be spiritual mediums, they claim to talk to the dead. There are many, people, we all know this. There are cheats and charlatans everywhere." Randi's response was to say "you're one of them".
Rosemary Altea also made the claim the one million dollars does not exist, or is in the form of pledges or promissory notes. The JREF has stated that the million dollars is in the form of negotiable bonds within a "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account" and that validation of the account and the prize amount can be supplied on demand. The money is held in an Evercore Wealth Management account.
Randi rejected applicant Rico Kolodzey, stating in the rejection letter that the applicant was "a liar and a fraud." The applicant in question claimed to survive without food via Breatharianism. Randi asserted that Kolodzey's claim was so absurd or untestable on its face that it merited outright rejection. For example, Randi and the JREF explained their outright rejection of Kolodzey based on a policy to reject any applicants who put themselves in grave physical danger, although this clause was not added to the official Challenge rules until years after the incident. However, on May 19, 2006, Randi made a special exception to that rule due to all of the "raucous fuss" and began private negotiations for testing with Kolodzey. After 100 days of negotiations a test procedure still could not be agreed upon by both parties. In response to the stalled negotiations, Randi publicly commented that Kolodzey was retreating from testing after strenuously objecting to the rejection of his initial application.
Members of a group from Bali, referring to themselves as Yellow Bamboo, claimed one of their number, Pak Nyoman Serengen, could knock down an attacker at a distance, using only a piece of yellow bamboo. Video clips on their website showed a crowd of students running at Serengen, and falling to the ground when (or, in some cases, slightly before) Serengen extended his hand and shouted. The JREF arranged volunteers to carry out a preliminary investigation, but after the Yellow Bamboo group "threw every sort of obstacle in the way of that plan", Randi announced that he was terminating further involvement with them.
A local volunteer contacted Randi offering to investigate the group unofficially. A low resolution video showed the investigator being knocked to the ground during a preliminary test. The JREF pointed out that the test was not conducted according to the proposed protocol, with multiple flaws in the execution including being carried out at night. Upon viewing a set of still shots from the incident, several people experienced with stun-guns suggested that an electroshock weapon could have been used.
In an appearance on ITV's "This Morning", on September 27, 2011, magician Paul Zenon challenged Welsh psychic Leigh Catherine [aka Leigh-Catherine Salway] to take the one million dollar challenge and she accepted. Phillip Schofield, a "This Morning" host, stated that the program would pay for her flights to the USA to be tested. Salway subsequently backed out of the challenge, explaining in a Tweet "As expected - dodgy as legally & set up to make it impossible to pass!".
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